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Learning in the Flow of Work: Four Keys to Success

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Tue Dec 26 2023

Learning in the Flow of Work: Four Keys to Success
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Learning in the flow of work was one of the hottest topics for the talent development industry in 2023. In this blog series by ATD’s CTDO Next consortium, we are exploring the topic in detail to summarize our insights, experiences, and recommendations about workflow learning. If you haven’t yet, check out the first article in this series before continuing.

Once you’ve determined learning in the flow of work is the right solution for your business challenge and that your target audience has the capacity to respond effectively to it, take these four considerations into account as you design your learning solution.

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1. Understand the Work at a Micro Level

Traditional training programs have been built based on an analysis that confirms a need for broad-based development or development in a particular dimension of a job (supervisory basics, how to conduct a performance discussion). Learning in the flow of work requires an in-depth understanding of the entire job, or at the very least, the myriad critical moments when learning might need to be accessed. And we must understand those moments well enough to decide if the learning can be embedded, as in a smart form that will not let you move on until you fill it out fully and correctly, or if the learning moment can be prompted or must be sought.

If The Matrix had been made two years later, when algorithm marketing had begun, this scene might have been different:

Neo and Trinity stand on the roof of a building. A voice comes from Trinity’s headset.

Headset: “I see you are being pursued by shooters with automatic weapons. Would you like to learn to fly that nearby helicopter?”

2. Leverage Tools Employees Already Use

Sticking with The Matrix metaphor, when Neo or any of the other rebels wanted to leave the matrix, they used a landline telephone. The movie producers explained that the characters had to enter and exit the matrix from out-of-the-way places where they could not be observed and, in those places, telephones were already there, “and besides, everyone knows how to use them.” They put an easy-to-use tool right where it would be needed.

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That is one of the biggest challenges to TD—putting easy-to-use learning right into the path of the worker. It must operate using the same hardware and software used to do the job. In some cases that is a mobile app, in others microlearning in the form of three-minute videos, and in other cases it is scanning a barcode to access a job aid. It can include quick reference guides, FAQs, or online communities where employees can seek immediate answers to specific questions or challenges they encounter during their work.

But we also need to rethink how we structure, think, and talk about work. We can:

Embed learning into job descriptions and job tasks. Make sure that development is listed as a requirement for every job. In practice, managers can assign challenging projects or tasks that require employees to acquire new skills or knowledge. Encourage job rotations or cross-functional collaboration to expose employees to different roles and responsibilities, fostering continuous learning and skill development.

Incorporate learning in performance management. Integrate learning goals and objectives into performance management processes. Encourage managers to discuss learning and development during performance reviews or one-on-one meetings. This emphasizes the importance of continuous learning and provides a framework for employees to set learning goals aligned with their job responsibilities.

Encourage peer learning and mentoring. Foster a culture of knowledge sharing and collaboration among employees. Encourage peer learning by creating forums or platforms where employees can share their expertise, ask questions, and learn from each other. Establish mentoring programs where experienced employees can guide and support their colleagues in their learning journey.

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Promote continuous feedback. Encourage regular feedback loops between managers and employees. Feedback can include discussing learning progress, identifying areas for improvement, and recognizing achievements. Constructive feedback helps employees understand their strengths and areas where they can further develop their skills.

Track learning progress. Use learning analytics and tracking systems to monitor employee progress and engagement with learning activities. This data can provide insights into the effectiveness of the learning initiatives, identify areas for improvement, and track the impact of learning on performance.

3. Think Beyond Learning Resource Integration

To succeed, learning in the flow of work also means (re)designing systems and processes to optimize the ability of people to learn on the job. It requires the individual to be a deliberate and active learner. In fact, it requires a culture that makes learning habitual. And it requires leadership that promotes, celebrates, and rewards learning. Organizations need to foster an environment where employees are encouraged to explore innovative ideas, experiment, and share knowledge openly.

The goal of learning in the flow of working is to create a learning ecosystem that seamlessly integrates with employees’ daily work, enabling them to acquire new skills, knowledge, and competencies in a practical and relevant manner. By embedding learning into the workflow, organizations can enhance employee performance, promote professional growth, and foster a culture of continuous learning and improvement.

4. Consider the Many Forms of Workflow Learning

Learning in the flow of work is not new and not just about software and tools. Contextualized learning exists today, and most of it occurs in the flow of work, though that flow may be non-traditional. Case studies and scenario-based simulations offer context to learning, but they are not typically embedded in the flow of work. MicroSims or cases that could be used as quick practice sessions might be considered as such.

On-the-job training involves learning while performing actual tasks or assignments. It allows employees to receive guidance and support from more experienced colleagues or mentors as they work on real projects. This type of learning enables individuals to acquire skills and knowledge in a context that closely resembles their everyday work environment.

Project-based learning involves assigning employees to work on projects or tasks that align with their learning goals. By actively engaging in projects, individuals can apply their knowledge and skills to solve real-world problems, collaborate with colleagues, and gain hands-on experience in a specific context. This approach allows for contextualized learning by linking the learning process directly to the project outcomes. Again, not everyday work, but close.

Job shadowing involves observing and learning from experienced colleagues as they perform their work. Employees can gain insights into the context, processes, and skills required for specific roles or tasks by directly observing and interacting with practitioners. Job shadowing provides a firsthand understanding of how work is conducted, facilitating contextualized learning.

And collaborative learning involves working together with colleagues on projects, tasks, or problem-solving activities. Through collaborative efforts, employees can share their diverse perspectives, exchange knowledge and skills, and learn from each other’s experiences. This form of learning encourages contextualized learning as individuals interact within a social and professional context.

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